Loyal to a fault

Tim Springett looks at Stuart Gray's sorry experience at Southampton and charges the club with mishandling both his appointment and his sacking

For the third campaign in a row, Southampton have un­dergone a mid-season change of manager. Six points from the first seven games of the season had the pressure building on Stuart Gray and, as Saints prepared to take on West Ham on October 20, it was a fair bet that the losing manager might find himself out of a job by the following Monday. The Hammers’ 2-0 victory earned Glenn Roeder a breathing space but Saints’ chairman Rupert Lowe duly wielded the axe.

Announcing Gray’s dismissal, Lowe stated that the now ex-manager had done well after succeeding Glenn Hoddle last season, but things had not worked out this term. But from the nine games of last season for which Gray had been in charge, Saints collected seven points – almost an identical record to the current campaign. If such a run of poor form was not acceptable this time around, it makes you wonder why Lowe appointed Gray as manager in the summer.

To most Saints fans, Gray was a popular and res­pected coach but not management material. How­ever, Lowe informed us that, in appointing Gray, he had chosen the best man for the job. He also claimed to have acted in a professional manner and been decisive. But he had waited until June 28 before making the ap­pointment, leaving Gray little time to start planning for the new season.

Other candidates had apparently been told by Lowe that the employment of both Gray and Dennis Rofe as assistants must con­tinue if they were to take charge. Many potential man­agers would doubtless have con­sidered this undue interference from the chairman and, more than likely, a sign of worse to come. On his appointment Gray him­self commented: “If we ident­ify players that we want, I’m sure the chairman will make the funds av­ailable.” This indicates that no guar­antees had been given.

Now, eight games into the season, five of them away from home, Lowe appears to have abandoned these principles. Stuart Gray, who Lowe insisted had to be rewarded for his loyalty to the cause, has been shown none. (Apparently going behind someone’s back is OK if they don’t know about it.) His successor was watching at West Ham at Lowe’s invitation. And having taken all of six weeks to give Gray the job in the sum­mer, the cloak-and-dagger ap­pointment of Gordon Strachan pos­itively reeks of panic.

“Myself and the board probably feel to some ex­tent responsible for the fact that it hasn’t worked out.” That, it seems, is as close to an acceptance of blame as we are likely to get from Lowe. It was certainly an expensive error – Gray and his assistant Mick Wadsworth had signed long contracts in the summer and it has cost a reported £2 million to pay them up. For a relatively poor club such as the Saints that is a lot of money to throw away.

On being given the job, Strachan seemed to have more of a sense of disappointment at losing an opportunity to improve his golf than of urgency to turn Saints’ season around. His record in five years at Cov­entry is not that impressive – 52 wins and 79 defeats in 183 Premiership matches – while Sky Blues fans were highly critical of his tactics, his PR and the influence of his assistant at Highfield Road, Garry Pendrey, who has duly been installed as right-hand man with Saints. It seems that the fact that he has Premiership management experience was sufficient for him to get the job – perhaps we should be grateful that Leicester had al­ready snapped up Dave Bassett.

Saints must hope Strachan will guide the club to­wards Premiership safety, which these days is the limit of ambition for about half the clubs in the div­ision. But what will happen if the poor form continues? Will Stra­chan be afforded more time – and more funds – than his predecessor? Or will he too be relieved of his duties to make way for a new “right man for the job”, with the chairman remaining in post?

Having presided over the construction of the new stadium, Mr Lowe seemed to think he was untouchable. But now, on top of his em­barrassing bleatings about the dep­artures of Hoddle and Dean Richards, he has bung­led badly and lost con­trol. The bad news for him is that at St Mary’s there is room for 32,000 dis­sen­ters to come in and call for the chairman’s head.

From WSC 178 December 2001. What was happening this month